Op-ed column: New York needs voucher system to improve education

The United States spends more per pupil per year on K-12 education than any other country in the wor

The United States spends more per pupil per year on K-12 education than any other country in the world: an average of $9,666 in 2006-07. And New York state spends $15,981, the highest in the nation.

In constant dollars, the U.S. spends 3.5 times more per pupil today than in the 1960s. But, has student performance improved? Not really.

SAT scores in reading fell from 540 to 500, and math scores remained no better at 515. A graduation rate of 76 percent places the U.S. 21 out of 27 countries that participate in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The U.S. ranked in the lower third in math proficiency, based on the 2000 OECD Program for International Student Assessment, and even lower — 25 out of 30 countries — in the most recent assessment of 2006.

By several measures, we spend ever-increasing sums to do an increasingly poorer job of preparing our youngsters to enter the global community.

What has changed since the ’60s? Most significantly, our educational system now operates with much less competition, denying students an educational choice.

Schools closing

Many private schools, in particular Catholic parochial schools, have disappeared. More than 1,400 Catholic schools closed nationwide in just the past decade. In the mid-’60s, Catholic school enrollment was 5.5 million students, representing more than 10 percent of the total K-12 population in America. Today the number is just over 2 million, or 4 percent.

Why all the closings? Prior to the mid ’60s, nuns and priests who took little or no pay performed virtually all instruction in Catholic schools. Consequently, tuition could be kept to a minimum. No one was prevented from attending a Catholic school because of finances.

Not so today. Lay teachers occupy 96 percent of the positions in Catholic schools. That fact drives average elementary tuition to $3,200, too great a financial burden for many households. Consequently, many who would prefer a Catholic school education are forced into the public system.

What does this mean for education in the United States? It means the vast majority has no choice in education, making the public system a virtual monopoly.

An enterprise with a captive market and without competition most often produces an inferior product at excessive cost. Unfortunately, public education is no exception.

Twelve states operate successful voucher systems that redirect public school dollars to families for private education. In 2007, Utah passed some groundbreaking legislation under which every family, depending on its income, would be reimbursed between $500 and $3,000 per child for annual tuition paid to the private school of their choice. Unfortunately, voters killed the legislation by ballot after opponents, with millions of dollars for ads from a national teachers union, persuaded residents to say no.

The ads used misinformation and scare tactics to frighten people into supporting the status quo even though vouchers would reduce taxes and improve education quality.

A similar system in New York would save taxpayers even more money because the current costs are so high. Using the Utah formula, New York taxpayers would save about $12,000 for every child moving from the public to the private system. Of course, children already attending private schools would also receive the voucher; so about 4 percent would need to switch in order for the plan to be cost neutral. Not too hard to imagine, because even the modest voucher amount proposed in Utah would enable many more families to move their children to private schools.

The voucher or choice idea typically generates fierce attacks from the National Education Association, the largest union in the U.S. They say it’s unconstitutional. It’s not — the Supreme Court ruled as much in 2002, in its decision affirming the voucher program in Cleveland. They say it violates the separation of church and state. No more than the GI bill or Title 1 does.

They say it siphons money away from the public system. Yes, that’s the point. That’s how the competitive balance is achieved, ultimately improving the public system.

Need for courage

Let’s hope the NEA and the New York State United Teachers union find the wisdom and courage to look beyond self-interest and honestly consider what is best for America.

And the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops needs to step up its tepid support for school choice. The bishops should make the case for choice, and marshal the collective voice of 70 million Catholics. Bishop Hubbard should take the lead so Catholic schools in the Albany Diocese not only survive, but flourish.

America cannot afford to remain on the current course. Simply returning to what we had in the ’60s would be a good start.

Larry Jordan lives in Amsterdam. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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